Boots on the Ground: Japanese Politics and Society

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Johns: Thank you very much for joining us. Where in the world were you and what were you doing there?

Carolina Amparo: I was studying abroad in Osaka, Japan. I was lucky enough to be able to travel to visit other cities in Japan, particularly Kyoto and Tokyo, but I mostly stayed in Osaka. My studies focused on beginning to learn Japanese, and becoming more familiar with the international history and politics of Northeast Asia.

MJ: What’s the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned or observed while in the country? 

CA: What surprised me the most was the divide concerning the pacifist culture in Japan and how that’s changing. I was lucky enough to become good friends with one of the native Japanese residents of the neighborhood, right next to the dorms where I was living, and as we spoke and I got to know him better I realized that he was born in the ‘50s and grew up in the years as Japan was rebuilding. And so he very much experienced the toll that the Second World War had had on Japan and he saw his country move up through the aftermath; he was strongly devoted to pacifism because of what he saw.

On the other hand, I was going to school with other international students but also local Japanese students. And in my courses, whenever we were talking about recent developments in and around Japan and the topic of tensions with China or potential issues with Taiwan came up, they would share their views and they would say that they were mostly in support of increasing the defenses of Japan, and the changes suggested in the recent rule in the recent national security strategy put forward by the current administration.

MJ: Pacifism is a very hard thing for Americans to understand given their own history and culture. It’s not quite unique, but we might say it’s almost unique to the Japanese political position, at least as a feature of mass politics. Other than that, what do you see as distinctive about the Japanese political or cultural outlook?

CA: The focus of Japanese society is still very communal, whereas the United States is more individualistic. Although it’s not that clear-cut, that still definitely has an impact. For example, in Japan there seems to be a general consensus around the current laws. Things like protests or rallies aren’t nearly as common as they are here in the United States. If people criticize certain policies, they do so very privately, not because they’re censored but because there’s almost this sense that private opinion is a private opinion, but there needs to be respect for the people who are in positions of power.

This also translates into the country being very organized and very safe. Most people don’t contest most of the laws, but that also goes hand in hand with the fact that in my opinion and experience, the laws are very reasonable and the country is well planned. Things are clean; things are safe.

MJ: You brought up the United States. What do Japanese people think of their relationship to the United States, or how do they conceive of that relationship? What do you make of their perspective on America?

CA: That’s a great question. As far as present tensions in the region, there is still very much a sense that the Japanese can rely on their partnership with the United States, if there will be a conflict. Hopefully, there isn’t. But if there is, the United States’s security system, its nuclear defense umbrella, will protect Japan for the most part. The foundation of their changes in the recent organizational structure of the self-defense forces, which is their military, are founded on the idea that they will be working hand in hand with the United States. That’s the defense side. 

As far as the cultural side, there is a lot of interest – especially around the students I was with – on what life is like in the United States. There’s a fascination with American sports teams and artists. I would see random sweaters with just the names of states on them, and they were made to look like varsity sweaters. They clearly weren’t, but people would wear them everywhere. There’s still those soft power ties, and it also goes both ways, because there’s many people in the United States interested in Japanese culture. So thankfully strong political ties but also strong cultural ties. 

MJ: You spoke about how Japan can rely on the United States in a time of regional crisis, and its defense posture, and there’s plenty of fertile ground for discussion about Japan’s cultural and economic role as well. What does Japan think about its place in the region, its relationship with its neighbors and its future in East Asia?

CA: The Japanese consider themselves a bastion of the international order. They want to maintain the status quo of maritime security and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific, especially regarding aggressive Chinese behavior in and around their exclusive economic zone. Accordingly, they’ve partnered with the U.S., Australia, and the Philippines to organize patrols of shipping lanes and coordinate military exercises.

The Japanese also recognize the need to overcome their differences with South Korea given hostile Chinese and North Korean behavior. Both governments worked to resolve trade issues that flared during their previous administrations. There is also an attempt to mend cultural ties by acknowledging the past. At the G7, for example, South Korean President Yoon joined Japanese Prime Minister Kishida at a memorial dedicated to Koreans who lost their lives in the bombing of Hiroshima.

MJ: Last question: What was your favorite part about being in Japan?

CA: My favorite part about being in Japan was having the opportunity to appreciate a tight-knit community as an outsider looking in. Due to the language barrier, I spoke little to most Japanese locals in my neighborhood and I observed them go about their days. Although I noticed differences in work habits, uniforms, and transportation, the most important things remained the same. For example, neighbors held picnics, parents strolled with their kids, and students walked to class together. It was heartwarming to note that, although I was far from home, the fundamentals of human relationships remained the same.

MJ: Thanks for joining us!

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